Last Updated: Tue Feb 01, 2011 10:05 am (KSA) 07:05 am (GMT)

The “setback” of the Egyptian police… on Police Day

Mohammed Salah

Perhaps the most common question among people in Egypt and elsewhere now, in addition of course to many other questions about the situation in Egypt, is the following: how did the police vanish moments after the decision to impose curfew was issued on the evening of the “Friday of Wrath”? “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”: a saying that embodies the Egyptian scene, strongly stricken by chaos in a matter of hours. Egyptians have for years become accustomed to the absolute power of the police apparatus. Indeed, no voice rises above that of security, from obtaining rights to important appointments in the state apparatus, for which security approval had been necessary, to such an extent that the Ministry of the Interior had become like a government within the government.

The tasks assigned to the police have by far exceeded its supposed role of preserving security, supervising some services, such as issuing ID cards, supervising customs, airports and harbors, and implementing judicial rulings. The police exceeded its administrative role and came to play a political role that has placed it in a state of confrontation with the people. It continued to confront the protests of segments of the population, and to disperse protesting workers, real estate tax employees and other angry segments of society in all their diversity. The frustration felt by the people against the police apparatus has been piling up, entrenched by prevalent mistreatment and recurrent talk of torture and killing in police stations.

The recommendation of any security official remained necessary for getting things done in a country in which favoritism prevails. Then came the “Friday of Wrath” to place the police apparatus in a confrontation against various frustrated segments of society, in addition to the youth, enraged at unemployment that “has become the rule, not the exception”, as well as political groups that sought to ride the wave. The police found itself confronting massive crowds and deemed it inevitable to flee before the hordes of angered people, who, appalled at all the violence that was used against them, had retaliated with their own violence, turning Police Day in Egypt into a “setback” – one in which officers took off their uniforms and left their weapons and ammunition to be looted by thugs, in a scene reminiscent of the 1967 defeat, which came to be known as “the Setback”, when Egyptian army troops withdrew in a disorganized manner. The security institution “vanished” in mere hours, their stations were burned down, their weapons were looted and prisoners fled after their jailers. This spread the impression that there was a conspiracy to cause a state of chaos, met with justifications stating that the crowds nearly murdered policemen and that withdrawal had thus been the best solution in order to avoid a “bloody” confrontation.

The result: the country is without security and the army is struggling to save what can be saved. Terror has overcome hearts and minds… The chaos of weapons is no longer limited to swords and knives, but has spread to firearms, which have found their way into the hands of young boys and thugs who are using them to face off against popular committees formed by local inhabitants to defend their property. Real chaos: theft, looting and violence – a smaller-scale replica of the scene in Iraq on the night of the fall of Baghdad, but devoid of occupation forces – “Tunisiafication” the Egyptian way.

The protests have shown that the state had been living in a “state of relaxation”, as its institutions were collapsing within mere hours under their impact. And after the street has gone out of control and is now in a state of security vacuum, it is increasingly heading towards overwhelming chaos, competing with the Egyptian regime as well for containment and control of the situation. Appointments and dismissals are being made which the people had always been demanding: Director of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman has been appointed Vice President and Doctor Ahmed Nazif’s government is on its way out, as the Prime Minister is being replaced by Minister of Civil Aviation in the outgoing government Air Marshal Amhed Shafik, who is relatively well-accepted in the street.

President Hosni Mubarak yesterday started trying to take control of the situation. He appeared on state television, standing between his Vice President Suleiman and the outgoing Minister of Defense and Military Production Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, with Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Sami Anan also present. Yet the governmental vacuum still persists. Indeed, the government cabinet resigned on Saturday and no new ministers have been appointed, except for the Prime Minister, amid talk of numerous disagreements obstructing the formation of the new cabinet.

Past mistakes have caused the “uprising”, and if they had been corrected, things would not have gone so far. The “new steps” President Mubarak pledged to take in his appearance before the crowds in the early morning on Friday, after things had gone out of control, were too late. Indeed, the people had risen up to seize them and can no longer even be convinced by them. Major figures of the regime, especially resigned Secretary for Organizational Affairs of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) Ahmed Ezz, had always provoked the crowds with their insistence on achieving progress and growth not felt by citizens, until mobile phones and the spread of internet use among the youth, which Nazif’s government had always boasted of and considered to be a measure of progress, became a means for revolt and for mobilizing the crowds to topple the regime.

*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Jan. 31, 2011.

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